Auto Squiggler drawbot at Pecha Kucha Toronto

Auto Squiggler the drawbot at Pecha Kucha Toronto

January 23, 2014

The first of my new year projects was building a window mounted drawing robot (AKA a V-plotter). I followed the general mechanical design of Alex Weber’s Der Kritzler and for imagery I returned to my recurring fascination with landscapes and contours.

How it works (roughly)

The mechanics of the machine are somewhat complex. I’ll post about the build process in detail later (or sooner). The gist is that I used a pair of electric motors (steppers) attached to the glass surface using suction cups. A single flexible toothed belt is hung between the shafts of the two motors. A glass marking pen is suspended from the belt so its tip just touches the glass. By carefully controlling the movements of the motors it is possible to (slowly but quite precisely) draw complex images directly onto the window.

A deadline and a venue

Vivien Leung who runs the Pecha Kucha Toronto events approached me about installing something at the January 2014 event. This seemed like a perfect opportunity: a diverse and designy crowd with a built in deadline (without which I never finish a project). The event took place in the fancy Design Within Reach store on King Street West. The store has nice big windows facing out onto the street, perfect for a window-mounted ‘bot.

Inspirations

I’ve come across many cool examples of this kind of drawing machine over the years. Hektor is a wonderful, spray-painting example. Der Kritzler was a direct inspiration for this build. Patricio Gonzalez Vivo has been doing interesting work going from deformed digital image to woodcut print via drawbot. Lunar Trails is another great project that uses the same basic technique this one by Seb Lee-Delisle. It gradually reveals a landscape as it traces the paths taken in of days worth of games of a lunar lander type game. [thanks to Amos Shaw for the reminder about Seb's piece].

Cover art for Joy Division's album Unknown Pleasures by Peter Saville

Cover art for Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures by Peter Saville

For the imagery there were three major inspirations: the rugged landscape in which I grew up; a serendipitous page turn to some U.S. Army experimental maps in a book on cartographic design that I inherited from my father-in-law; and the iconic Peter Saville design for Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures.

Processing…

I have experimented before with using landscape contours as a source material. This time I had the idea of representing the topographies where some of the event’s presenters were born. So I solicited volunteers who were presenting at the event and were born somewhere not Toronto with an interesting landscape.

Provided with the birthplaces of several presenters (Montreal, Hong Kong, Michigan) I worked out a convoluted and labour intensive workflow to generate the images. Through several stages I converted the original landscape altitude data (which NASA kindly provide) into line drawings with the feel I was looking for and from there the form of code that the robot understands.

First show

The presentation at Pecha Kucha basically went well. The machine worked. People liked it. The colour wasn’t too difficult to remove from the windows when we were done. As always there were lessons to learn. Like: use the white marker more, it has the best contrast. And, provide some obvious sign post to draw people into the installation if the dynamics of the space mean they naturally pass it by. Really the installation as built might have been more ideally suited to a white walled gallery than to a busy furniture filled space. No reason it couldn’t be better at grabbing attention, just that I didn’t design carefully enough for that requirement. If you have a white walled gallery and need something new to show…

Next things

I don’t know exactly what’s next for Auto Squiggler, but I’m not done with it. Possible directions include: DIY Auto Squiggler workshops; Auto Squiggler as live data viz tool; an army of Squigglers installed in store fronts down a whole block for nuit Blanche; live interactive input… If you have ideas or like any of those please shoot me an email.

Sigh of relief

Anyway, a nice project to start my new year with. A real step along the ‘off the screen’ path I’ve been exploring in recent years. A great mix of digital and analogue. At times the project was a reminder of how unmalleable and frustrating the physical world can be when compared with code. There’s a pay off for managing that difficulty though, that a physical-digital hybrid is often more powerful and interesting than a purely digital object.

I’d like to thank: the person who invented electrons, my personal chef…

Even though this was a ‘solo’ project there are lots of people I need to thank for helping me bring it to life. Huge thanks to:

- Leila Boujnane & Paul Bloore of Idée/TinEye who provided space and support for me to work on my machine.
- Vivien Leung for instigating and supporting the project while juggling the event organising.
- Matthew Bambach, Becki Chan, Lysanne Latulippe & Meghan Price for agreeing to be represented in this experiment.
- Susannah Dinnen for documenting the project in photos.
- Design Within Reach for being supportive hosts as I installed a crazy machine that drew on their store windows.
- Alex Weber for his Der Kritzler hardware design.
- Marginally Clever for their Makelangelo drawbot control software.
- onformative for their brilliant technique and tutorial on generating topographical contour drawings in Processing.
- NASA for producing and releasing altitude data for the entire globe.

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